The Climate in Emergency

A weekly blog on science, news, and ideas related to climate change


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Fire

Ok, now Canada is on fire. As of two days ago, at least, British Columbia had all of its firefighters working, and still needs more help. Alberta’s resources are likewise becoming strained and the province has invited in firefighters from Mexico to help–the teams from Jalisco have partnered with Alberta before and the two groups have coordinated their training programs.  Saskatchewan and Manitoba are also struggling with many major fires, and the smoke has triggered serious air quality warnings in parts of the United States. Virtually all of the US is now smoky to some degree; I saw a thin, grey-yellow haze in Maryland last week. This is not the first time I’ve seen continent-wide smoke, but it’s still a startling thing.

When disaster strikes, it’s reasonable these days to wonder how the problem relates to climate change.

I wrote a few weeks ago about the fires in Alaska. The international boundary between Alaska and Western Canada is essentially a figment of human imagination, so it’s not surprising that most of what I wrote about fire in Alaska also applies on the other side of the boarder. I have not been able to find much in the way of detail on the ways global warming might be causing these fires (or, more precisely, making them more likely); generally, the farther from the equator an area is, the more its climate is changing–and the changes involve not just increasing average temperature, but increased extremes. That includes more extreme droughts and heat-waves, which promotes more fires. So, while there are other factors in play, fires in Alaska and Canada are getting worse, and climate change is one of the reasons why. Fire is the new normal in Western Canada, that much is clear.

What is even clearer is that these fires also exacerbate climate change, not only by releasing huge quantities of carbon dioxide but also by accelerating the melting of permafrost–that will eventually release huge quantities of methane, a very powerful greenhouse gas. Then we could fall into a nightmare scenario, where more warming melts more permafrost, releasing more methane, which causes more warming….

The ironic thing here is that as sensitive as Canada is to climate change, the Canadian government has been very poor at doing anything about the problem. Canada has one of the highest per-capita greenhouse gas emission rates in the world, it pulled out of the Kyoto Treaty, is not on track to meet its Copenhagen obligations, and is allowing the exploitation of the tar sands at horrible environmental and human cost.

Not to pick on Canada; it’s not like it’s the only country in the world that needs to get it’s act together on climate.

What strikes me in all of this is that we live in extraordinary times and by and large fail to notice that fact. Much of a continent lies veiled in smoke, half of Canada is rapidly exhausting its firefighting capacity, and science can tell us to expect more of the same. And yet, many people go on with life as before, continuing to talk about whether global warming will happen at some future point!

Recently, I’ve been watching The Abolitionists, on The American Experience. I can’t help but think that the timing of this rebroadcast is not a coincidence but instead represents a partial response by PBS to the deaths of Freddie Grey and others like him and to the recent violence against a string of black churches, beginning with the shooting in South Carolina. It is startling to watch the courage, dedication, and, in some cases, short-comings of the abolitionists against the context of current events.

However, I am also struck by how familiar the impatience of people like Frederick Douglas, Harriet Beecher Stowe and John Brown seems to other contexts. While other people in their society either insisted slavery wasn’t that bad or seemed content to let the trajectory of history “bend towards justice” with glacial slowness (apparently many white abolitionists were primarily concerned with the souls of white slaveholders and saw the welfare of actual black people as a kind of foot-note to the movement), they became insistent that slavery end now. Every minute of delay, they knew, was another minute of suffering and pain for millions of people. They were conscious of an emergency, and, each in their own way, acted on that knowledge.

Yes, I’m comparing slavery to climate change.

Some readers may accuse me of appropriating somebody else’s fight, of attempting to use the imagery and energy of the resurgent civil rights movement for my own ends. That’s a reasonable charge and I respond to it, with respect, thus; first, climate change is a social justice issue, since it hurts the disenfranchised first and most deeply, and second, the intersectionality of various issues leads to common and interrelated problems, so why not recognize the solutions as related as well? The fact of the matter is that human beings should be braver and more intellectually honest than they are, whether in light of churches burning in the South or forests and tundra burning to the North. I find the abolitionists inspiring. They rose to the occasion of their lives, and so should we.

Every moment of delay before a real solution is a moment lost.


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An Even More Inconvenient Truth

Yesterday, our TV news and internet news feeds erupted with tales of rioting in Baltimore. As a Marylander, this seems decidedly more personal than the events in Ferguson last year and the other recent incidents of justifiable, if entirely unhelpful rage. Also, I have a friend in Baltimore. He could get hurt in the riots. He is also black, so how Baltimore police treat black men is not an abstract issue for me. From any direction, this is a news story that hits home.

Let me just say it; for these officers to claim that they don’t know how Freddy Gray developed life-threatening injuries while in custody is an excuse unworthy of two-year-olds.

This is, of course, a blog on climate change and not on civil rights, but I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge current events. Also, there is an overlap between this topic and ours. As I discussed during the protests after Michael Brown’s death, part of the overlap has to do with the necessity of radical protest. Here is some of what I said then, edited for space:

A few days ago, I read the entire text of the Letter from Birmingham Jail for the first time.  It is the response, by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., to an open letter written by a group of white clergy condemning civil disobedience actions in Birmingham, Alabama. The Statement of Alabama Clergymen calls for the illegal protests to stop, praises the police for their non-violence in handling the protestors, and says that outsiders (by which they meant King and his associates) should stay out of it. Instead, the black people of Birmingham should be patient, obey the law, and work for their rights exclusively through the court system. They would get their rights respected someday. In essence, King replied that someday isn’t good enough.

This same week, I’ve read an article in The Atlantic, by Charles C. Mann.

Mr. Mann’s basic thesis is that nobody really knows how to talk about climate change [among other charges, he says that “extremists” should stop being so strident]. The charge that environmentalists should stop shouting “emergency” is an old one. We are told that we are scaring away potential allies, making people “feel guilty,” and if we only tone things down a bit we might make more progress.

The thing is, historically, change hasn’t worked like that. Dr. King knew this. To the call that his movement should exercise patience, he replied,

“We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. Frankly, I have yet to engage in a direct action campaign that was ‘well timed’ in the view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the word ‘Wait!’ It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This ‘Wait’ has almost always meant ‘Never.’ We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that ‘justice too long delayed is justice denied.'”

The men whom Dr. King addressed in his letter were self-described liberals who at least nominally supported racial justice, but they cared about public tranquility more. For them, the atrocities of racism must have seemed far away and abstract. In contrast, the social unrest, the protests, the disregard of law, must all have seemed very frightening and very real for them. Like the writer, Mr. Mann, they faced a choice between the solidity of the world they knew and the welfare of “distant, hypothetical beings.” They chose the former.In their letter calling for an end to public protest, the group of white clergy tried to paint their choice as a reasonable response to a strategic mistake on the part of Dr. King and his colleagues. They claimed that the civil rights demonstrators could not rightly call their actions non-violent because their protests incited violence against them. Dr. King rightly called them out on that particular piece of nonsense as well.

The other main point of overlap is that climate change is also a civil rights issue. Extreme weather, of the sort that climate change exacerbates, kills the disenfranchised first. Part of the problem is that poor people tend to live in vulnerable areas by default, such as those parts of New Orleans that everybody knew would flood eventually. Part of it is that the poor often lack the resources to leave before disasters and rebuild after them. Heat waves kill more people in poor urban neighborhoods, because such places have fewer shade trees and no air conditioning. But disasters also provide cover for the worst of privileged human impulses to come out; in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, there were white people who quite literally hunted black people. Many of those murders were never even investigated.

The greatest beneficiaries of fossil fuels will never see their sons hunted through the streets of a ruined city. They will never lose everything they have to a monster storm because they have multiple houses in multiple regions and can simply move. They will never lose their homes and livelihoods to eminent domain exercised in service to an oil pipeline or see their families die slowly of cancers caused by water polluted by shale oil exploitation. All these things are happening to people who lack the means to mount effective protest while the captains of industry raise billions of dollars to buy the upcoming presidential election.

I deplore these riots in Baltimore. They are quite literally self-sabotaging. But I applaud the urgency that fuels them. We need more of it right now.


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A Necessary Impatience

Last week the Internet was full of the tragic death of Robin Williams, a man apparently felled by a pervasive issue no one wants to talk about: depression. The subject was off-topic for this blog, but I wrote about it anyway, addressing climate change as a mental health concern. This week the internet is full of the death of the tragic Michael Brown, a boy apparently felled by a pervasive issue no one wants to talk about: racism. Again, the issue is off-topic here, but serves as a jumping off point for an important discussion.

A few days ago, I read the entire text of the Letter from Birmingham Jail for the first time. I had, of course, heard of the letter before. It is the response, by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., to an open letter written by a group of white clergy condemning civil disobedience actions in Birmingham, Alabama. In essence, the local authorities had responded to civil rights protests by making protest marches and boycotts illegal. The local activists had responded by continuing to march and by asking Dr. King and his colleagues to come in and help. King did, which was why he was jailed. The Statement of Alabama Clergymen calls for the illegal protests to stop, praises the police for their non-violence in handling the protestors, and says that outsiders (by which they meant King and his associates) should stay out of it. Instead, the black people of Birmingham should be patient, obey the law, and work for their rights exclusively through the court system. They would get their rights respected someday. In essence, King replied that someday isn’t good enough.

But actually reading the text of the Letter, I was struck by how much of it sounds weirdly current. The Ferguson protests  stem from a situation that is different in many of its details, but King’s urgency, his insistence that the community he had come to serve had a right to be angry, had a right to be “impatient,” sounds very much in keeping with many of the comments coming out of Ferguson.

This same week, I’ve read an article in The Atlantic. I can’t link to it, the current issue isn’t posted yet. It’s “How Climate Hysterics Hurt Their Own Cause,” by Charles C. Mann. The title does not quite say it all, but it comes close.

Mr. Mann’s basic thesis is that nobody really knows how to talk about climate change, not the moderates and not the extremists. Arguably he is right, given that we aren’t making much progress, but the article is full of questionable statements. For example, he asserts that sea level rise “will never affect me or anyone I know; nor, very probably, will it trouble my grandchildren.” He bases this statement on a timeline in which the sea only goes up by only one inch over the next century, followed by further rise later. Even assuming this timeline is correct (which it probably is not), one inch of sea level rise can be a major problem because of the extra power given to storm surges in low-lying areas. Consider that one extra inch is enough to get a flood over a door sill and into a basement. The sea level rise that has already happened flooded thousands of extra people in Superstorm Sandy who would otherwise have stayed dry. But perhaps Mr. Mann just doesn’t know anyone in New York? Indeed, he goes on to disavow any responsibility for others at all.

How much consideration do I owe my 40-times-great grandchildren, who, many climate researchers believe, will still be confronted by rising temperatures and seas? Americans don’t even save for their own retirement! How can we worry about such distant, hypothetical beings?

We might kindly assume that he actually does care about other human beings, that he is only anticipating the confusion of other people more selfish than he, but he never calls out the moral bankruptcy of the attitude he describes. It is hard to know where to start with this scientific and moral muddle.

But the charge that environmentalists should stop shouting “emergency” is an old one. We are told that we are scaring away potential allies, making people “feel guilty,” and if we only tone things down a bit we might make more progress.

The thing is, historically, change hasn’t worked like that.

Chattel slavery didn’t end because abolitionists refrained from denouncing it as a sin and an abomination. Women didn’t get the vote by being meek and ladylike. Jim Crow was not forced underground by the patience and forbearance of black people.  Gay people didn’t win legal marriage in so many states by waiting until America was “ready.” Change doesn’t happen because people wait for it politely.

Dr. King knew this. To the call that his movement should exercise patience, he replied,

We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. Frankly, I have yet to engage in a direct action campaign that was “well timed” in the view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the word “Wait!” It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This “Wait” has almost always meant “Never.” We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that “justice too long delayed is justice denied.”

The men whom Dr. King addressed in his letter were self-described liberals who at least nominally supported racial justice, but they cared about public tranquility more. For them, the atrocities of racism must have seemed far away and abstract. In contrast, the social unrest, the protests, the disregard of law, must all have seemed very frightening and very real for them. Like the writer, Mr. Mann, they faced a choice between the solidity of the world they knew and the welfare of “distant, hypothetical beings.” They chose the former.In their letter calling for an end to public protest, the group of white clergy tried to paint their choice as a reasonable response to a strategic mistake on the part of Dr. King and his colleagues. They claimed that the civil rights demonstrators could not rightly call their actions non-violent because their protests incited violence against them. Dr. King rightly called them out on that particular piece of nonsense as well.

The Letter From Birmingham Jail has become a classic of American political and moral literature because many people now realize that Dr. King was right. The emergency was real and could not wait. Resistance to racial justice was not caused by black stridency, and black people could not dissolve that resistance by adopting an attitude of meek patience. In retrospect, is seems cruel and ridiculous that anyone could say ‘wait’ to people who “have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim.”

So, why do modern environmentalists take seriously any calls for us to step down in turn? When we see whole communities forced to relocate because of sea level rise, when thawing permafrost is literally blasting giant holes in the ground of Siberia?

Events in Ferguson seem unrelated to climate change, but in the larger picture there is a lot of intersectionality between racial justice and environmental justice. The poor and the otherwise disenfranchised are the disproportionate victims of both climate change itself and the environmental costs of yet more fossil fuel extraction.

But just as there is overlap between the problems of racism and climate, there is also some overlap between solutions. In either case, doing something constructive requires taking the needs and concerns of people you have never and will never meet seriously. It requires actually learning something about the issues (one extra inch of water is a problem and Michael Brown isn’t the first black man the police of Ferguson have attacked). And it requires a principled refusal to treat an emergency as anything other than what it is.

Because while activists do have a responsibility to conduct themselves so as not to make the situation worse, resistance is not the result of stridency–it is its cause.